"We were awakened by the terrible sound of gunfire and explosions. We couldn't sleep all night," recalls 12-year-old Srijana Nepali who lives with her parents on the outskirts of Ghorahi. It was exactly one year ago on 23 November at 10:30 at night when the Maoists broke the truce, launched a surprise attack on the army base north of the town, killing 14 soldiers and 23 police and looting the armoury. In the year since, more than 5,000 people have been killed all over Nepal.
Ghorahi's children still remember that fateful night when the war came to their doorstep. Recalls Srijana: "We all huddled and hid inside our rooms, our hearts beating like drums. In the morning we looked outside and there were dead bodies everywhere, and I will never forget the sight of the bright red pools of blood."
A bomb left behind by the Maoists went off, injuring Srijana in the abdomen. "I still get nightmares about that terrible night," she tells us. "Every time I hear a loud bang, I get a panic attack and I have to go lie down." Srijana's physical wounds have healed, but the psychological scars from the fear and anxiety remain. A bright student, she has not been able to do well in her studies.
Down the street, six-year-old Arogya Rijal still remembers last year's fierce fighting on his street. "At first, I thought they were setting off firecrackers," he says. These days, being street-smart in Ghorahi for children like Arogya is to learn not to touch anything lying around-it may easily be a booby-trap explosive.
At the local primary school, Ambika Dahal says he has noticed that the children are listless and distracted. "They don't want to be too far away from us, in classrooms they seem to be absorbed in their own thoughts," Dahal tells us. "The boys are always talking about guns, bombs and the army, not about their studies."
Dipak Shrestha, a ten-year-old boy living close to the District Police Office, remembers the deafening sound of gunfire explosions all night, and Maoist commander shouting orders: "Jaljala Platoon, advance. Shoot. Shoot." Dipak's mouth went dry with fear, he had to drink water several times. "We thought we were all going
to die," he says.
This week, the army has intensified patrols in anticipation of a Maoist attack to mark the anniversary. There are roadblocks and everyone is searched, people have to even empty their pockets. The increased security has brought back memories of that night, and by late afternoon the streets wear a deserted look.
There is a group of young boys from Rukum at the bus park. "We were repeatedly warned to join the militia squad," one of them whispered. "We thought we should get out. Moreover, there's isn't any food left in our village." His group is trying to go to India to find work and to escape the fighting.
A civil servant from Libang has also come down to Ghorahi. He says the only people left in his district are toddlers and older people. "The CDO office is full of young people desperately trying to get papers so they can leave," he says. A policeman who was recently transferred from Rukum agrees: "While we were on patrol, we found almost every house was locked up. Whole villages are empty."
In Dang itself, the Maoists have intensified their house-to-house extortion drive, blowing up bridges and roads, plundering the property of those who have left. Dang is the strategic corridor for both the Maoists and the security forces, so key bridges linking the district with the Mahendra Highway and Pyuthan have been damaged
in recent attacks, and army convoys ambushed.
All but one of the VDC buildings in Dang have been blown up and all documents destroyed. Local officials have gathered what files are left and shifted their offices to Ghorahi, Tulsipur and Lamahi. A 30-year old farmer from eastern Dang has walked three hours to Ghorahi just to get his son's birth registered, something he would have down in his own village. He says the fields in his village have been harvested, but because the farmers are away, the grain is rotting or is being looted.
"We are trying our best to maintain peace and order in the district," says the CDO for Dang, Mathur Prasad Yadav. "And since the mobilisation of the security forces, the situation has come under control." But most people know that things are far from normal.
The Maoists for their part appear to have given up any semblance of respecting public opinion. Said the teacher from Rukum: "They seem to have decided that they now have to make a final push." Most here doubt that the Maoist leaders mean it when they say they want a negotiated solution. But others see the increased brutality, extortion and the spread of human misery as indications that things must get much worse before they get better here in the midwestern hills of Nepal.
'Children suffer the most'
Excerpts from a BBC Nepali Service interview with General Secretary of the Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), Subodh Raj Pyakurel:
"Women and children suffer the most when violent activities happen in any country and are the one who suffer the most. Studies show that over 50,000 children have been directly affected due to the on-going insurgency. So far, 109 children have been killed during the conflict out of which the state has killed 67 children and the rebels have killed 42. Recently, the Maoists killed a 14-year-old child at Rajapur, Bardiya for allegedly giving directions to some army personnel.
The children narrated their experiences at a program recently organised by INSEC. They need answers to questions like what any side can gain by killing people who have nothing to do with the so-called People's War. They feel nobody can protect them.
As a human rights organisation, we have repeatedly appealed to both the government and the Maoist rebels [to stop the violence]. We have rehabilitated some children. These children share their stories with the public so people can stand against atrocities.